TrekEast Blog 2: Everglades National Park: Part I

Photo credit: Ron Sutherland

Hello Trekkers,

Given that I was “out of signal range," I am providing you with several days worth of blogging in two parts.  Thanks for your patience.

February 4 -- The air was raucous with fowl as I left the busy Highway 1 corridor and headed west into the South Florida Water Management District’s Everglades Environmental Area (CHECK).  Herons, egrets, storks, ibises and other wading and diving birds seemed not too bothered that they were feeding along an artificial canal, the likes of which have starved much of the original Everglades Ecosystem of its needed water and reduced bird numbers to small fractions of their original prodigious multitudes.

Still, I was thrilled to see the gorgeous birds, even in an altered state (the land, not the birds or me), and relieved to be riding a quiet dirt road.  I also saw a big alligator along this part of my 71-mile ride, but it didn’t get really nice and natural  until I entered Everglades National Park.  The 30 miles of riding the main road into Everglades Park were quiet and beautifully diverse, in Florida’s flat and subtle way.  The Everglades landscape may look plainly open and wet throughout, to the untrained eye, but a more than casual glance reveals sawgrass meadows, fire-dependent pinelands, stunted cypress swamps, hardwood hammocks, mangrove swamps, and open waters.  Much of the wildlife species diversity is also cryptic – small or nocturnal or camouflage species – but big bright birds are oft in sight.

The ride was quick and easy till the sun got hot and the wind contrary.  Then my speed slowed, my thirst grew, and I was grateful to reach Flamingo and find Wildlands Network friends waiting for me.

Though a busy campground and boat launch, Flamingo offers much for wildlife watchers, too.  We saw dozens of osprey, a bald eagle, many waterfowl, three sluggish American crocodiles, and manatees.

Walking the Coastal Prairie Trail, Margo explained to us the patterns of Red, Black, and White Mangroves – being upset by human-induced sea level rise.  Ron found a chubby little southern toad.  We all admired the bright greens and creeping reds of the saltworts.

That night, my Adirondack paddling friends Brian Trzaskos, Larry Barns, and Reg Bedell arrived, with a week’s worth of delicious food prepared by Brian’s wife Susie and my wife Denise as part of their Flying Pancakes food service.   So our paddling team was gathered: Brian (ascentwellness.com) is a physical therapist and teacher of tai chi and other healthy disciplines who is himself extremely fit and strong.  He’s an experienced climber, hiker, and paddler, and had done much study of the Everglades in anticipation of this journey (more than I’d found time to do).  Larry (larrybarnsphotography.com) is a professional photographer and outdoors person whose work has appeared in many magazines.  Reg (essexlaw.org and migratoryhavens.com) is a southern gentleman turned environmental lawyer who longs to see restored the rich wildlife he knew decades ago in the South.  Ron you’ve already met, as Wildlands Network’s conservation scientist and Southeast director – one of the best things to happen to our organization in years. We are a varied but strong five, with plenty of outdoor experience but little on-the-water time in the Everglades.

February 5 -- Packing was a big job, as we had a pack-canoe to assemble and piles of gear and food to organize.  After fond farewells to Wildlands friends, and to the neighborhood crocs and coots, we set off north, up a canal that was foolishly built long ago to drain the Glades then dammed when the folly was realized.

 Now, I pride myself on my wildlife spotting ability, but once in awhile I find myself afield with a spotter who easily eclipses me.  Ron Sutherland, brilliant young Wildlands Network biologist, is one such.  A herpetologist (student of reptiles and amphibians) by training, Ron somehow spotted a baby crocodile on the far side of the river, blending almost imperceptibly yet adorably with the branch on which it lay.  Ron promises a pizza to any one of us who can help him find the native bright orange snake known as the mangrove saltmarsh snake.

The next extra special wildlife sight today was three unrelated raptors circling together.  An osprey and a turkey vulture were soaring high over the brackish lake we were paddling, when a red-shouldered hawk joined them in flight.  The osprey looked a bit perturbed momentarily, but for a few moments, the three seemed to be deliberately circling together.

Most memorable of the wildlife encounters on this first full day in the Everglades was watching a school of mid-size fish (about half a foot long; Ron suspects menhaden or some similar bait fish) race past, bounding out of the water in perfect synchrony.  The rapid hurdling left flashes of silver in the late afternoon sunlight and was, as Brian exclaimed, like the synchronized swerving some swift birds occasionally display.

Day one of our Wilderness Waterway paddle ended with white pelicans flying in tight squadron high overhead, then a brilliant sunset, then a new moon, then a dolphin surfacing just a hundred feet from our chickee (small platform above water with roof, on which paddlers typically camp).  Before letting the mosquitoes chase us into our tents, we glimpsed in Ron’s flashlight a crocodile lunging in the shallows after jumping fish.

Apart from awareness that the Everglades has been badly damaged by hydrological manipulations and exotic species and soon likely will be harmed by global overheating, the one troubling aspect of the day’s otherwise wonderful paddle was the speeding motorboats.  Everglades National Park officials allow motorboats in places that ought to be kept quiet and wild, for wildlife, paddlers, and others seeking peace and quiet.  This is a wonderful waterway, but it is not yet wholly Wilderness.

February 6 -- Scarce a day out, we sidled up to a scene of salacious cetacean sex!  Dolphins were cavorting all around us, and with no fish in sight, and the obvious joyful leaping, we had to suspect carnal pleasures were being had below.  We saw at least twenty of these playfully masterful sea mammals today.

Motor-boat traffic diminished as we got farther into the Park, thank goodness. We’ve been surprised by how much open water is in this western part of the Everglades. Almost it seems more a region of big lakes than of vast swamps, though of course it is both.   We detoured out of Little Joe River – often nearly a thousand feet across, and moved more by tide than by direct gravity – to look at the broad part of Whitewater Bay.  That look assured us we’d chosen well not to cross the broad windy waters, for they are many exposed miles wide.

Ron and Larry glimpsed a sea turtle (likely a loggerhead or green), as they took a more leisurely route to our second campsite, at Shark River chickee.  As I write these notes, a dolphin is spouting and slapping its tail on the dark waters beyond our mosquito-swarmed chickee.  We’ve all been driven into our tents by the biting insects – first gnats (no-see-ums), invisibly painful, then the mosquitoes.

Brian and I have renewed our physiology/ecology banter, in which he tells me of some system or situation or syndrome in the human body, and I try to find a parallel in wild ecosystems, and vice versa.  The connections and analogies are many and instructive, showing why physical health and ecological integrity are so tightly tied, Brian and I both believe.  The simple points are that human health depends on ecological health and that habitat destruction is like abuse of the body, but there are many more specific lessons as well.  One we discussed today is how natural flows are essential to maintaining health of the system.  When I told Brian of Wildlands Network’s Lifelines conservation model, Brian affirmed that tissue near capillaries is the most vital and if circulation is cut off, surrounding tissue quickly dies.  More of these comparisons when Brian and I have time to write.  (Follow Brian’s teachings on ascentwellness.com.)

Bird life today was again dramatic, with many herons, ibises, egrets, pelicans, raptors.  The pair of pileated woodpeckers flying across the river and the palm warbler singing in the nearby hardwood hammock were extra treats. 

Animals beneath the shining waters again included blue crabs, needlefish, and snappers.  We keep looking for snakes but haven’t found any yet.  Maybe our day-time paddles keep us in sun too intense for their liking.

February 7 -- Day 3 we owe to the gators.  We saw one American crocodile early on, then basking American alligators at seemingly regular intervals.  As well, many of the side channels that so entice a paddler may owe their continuity to alligator dredging.  Alligators are a keystone species in the Everglades, their water-filled wallows critical to many smaller animals during dry periods.  Crocodiles are an indicator species, needing secure nesting sites not flooded by artificial water releases.  Both these crocodilians are conservation success stories, having partially recovered their numbers with Endangered Species Act protections over the last few decades.

Wading birds and waterfowl were also thrilling sights today, especially the roseate spoonbill that flew 30 feet over our heads as we paddled the North Harney River.  Again birds of different color flying together made us wonder about interspecies relations.  A pair of wood storks high above resolved itself instead into one stork and a white pelican.  White Ibises, young and old, intermingled with snowy egrets.  Near dusk, as we set up camp on the Harney River chickee, scores of herons, mostly little blue and tricolored, flew east, perhaps toward the big rookery east of Tarpon Bay on Rookery Creek.

Birds are both the wonder and the warning of the Everglades.  A paddler still sees here a diversity and abundance of birds, most obviously the glamorous big wading birds; but the sadly familiar statistic is that waterfowl populations in southern Florida are down more than 90% from original levels.  If you read Peter Matthiessen’s master work of fiction, Shadow Country, about early Euro-American settlers of the Ten Thousand Islands and Everglades region, you realize that people have been killing and displacing our colorful avian neighbors for a long time.  The shooting of birds for the millinery trade has stopped, thankfully, but the disruptions of natural water supplies may be dooming some of our country’s most gorgeous residents to depleted populations in marginal habitats, and perhaps eventual extinction.  Agribusiness and development have reduced the Everglades to shadows of their former glory, but even these shadows are sublime.

We’ve not seen any manatees since Flamingo, and it’s hard not to wonder if motorboats have driven them out.  How and why a manatee should have to dodge a motorboat roaring down the “Wilderness Waterway” at 40 knots is beyond me.  I realize that political compromises had to be made and that motorboating is a popular form of recreation in the Glades, but couldn’t low speed limits be strictly enforced, and couldn’t motorboat propellers be encaged such that prop strikes would not so often be fatal?

Mangroves continue to dominate the shoreline, but we’re seeing some larger hardwood trees on uplands beyond the muddy shores.  Probably some of these forest patches are tropical hardwood hammocks, highly diverse ecosystems of which few original stands remain.   My mother’s research for Old Growth in the East: A Survey, suggests that Everglades National Park contains significant stands of uncut mangrove and hardwood hammock but the exact whereabouts are not well known. Along the Harney and North Harney Rivers, we saw wax myrtle and mahogany and ferns among the mangrove trees.  Near the end of our time on the North Harney, we noticed a lovely little fern glade tucked in to the mangrove forest just south of the river.  Ron noticed that some of the larger trees appear to be black mangrove, though we know not why.  However, we saw one tree on the south bank of Harney River that looked to be a red mangrove about twenty inches in diameter and a good fifty feet tall, by our guesses.

Our third camp is proving quite comfortable, with a strong west breeze keeping away the gnats and mosquitoes.  The waxing crescent moon and stars are not quite so brilliant tonight, as moister air blows in from the Gulf of Mexico.

More tomorrow,

John

Comments

Everglades, such a beautiful place!

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Amazing article, thanks :) Truly nature at it's best.
As many of you may know, or may not know, Everglades National Park is in danger for many reasons so how and what should people do to help the Everglades National Park?
Boycotting the production of jojoba oil. Those plantations deal a lot of damage to the everglades.
Preserve nature so more articles like this can be published!

Nice informative blog. I like the challenge of spotting a bright orange mangrove saltmarsh snake - not easy. We recently spotted a rather large python while on a hike in Loxahatchee park. The non-native python population has exploded here in South Florida!
Anyway, you readers may like our latest blog: http://homepageheroes.com/shopforcharity-everglades-park-saving-florida-...
It speaks about a couple of charities that are doing a lot to preserve Everglades National Park and how we can all help (for free).
Best regards, Tracy

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